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I have two unfinished undergraduate degrees from two different universities, one in Math, and one in Computer Science. I also have a completed college diploma in computer programming, and a few years of experience in my field at a couple of different companies.

When applying for jobs, what's the most positive way to phrase the fact that I have most of a degree in a relevant field? I've used the terms 'Unfinished Degree' and 'Incomplete Degree' on resumes before, but I feel that neither term conveys what I'm trying to get across, which would be more like, "Most of a Degree, with no immediate plans to finish it, but don't worry, I'm not a complete idiot".

I'd like to address this in my cover letter, but I also don't want to spend too much time talking about it, and drawing extra attention to the fact that I twice enrolled in university studies, did most of the required work, but didn't bother to finish it.

In one recent cover letter that I sent out I had something along the lines of this: "I've got a college diploma in programming, the better part of a computer science degree, and a few years of experience working as a developer."

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I think the key point here is explain why you didn't finish them, seeing indication of only one unfinished degree on a resume would cause me to wonder why. Two might make me worry about your ability to complete your commitments. The why goes on your cover letter and you can tailor it, on the resume I'd say:

  • Collage Diploma in Programming
  • X years study at University 1 in Maths (including courses on ... )
  • Y years study at University 2 in Computer Science (including courses on ... )

and put in towards the end of the resume. Your recent experience counts for more so put that up front, be clear what you did and what your responsibilities are.

In the cover letter you can explain why you didn't finish the degree, be honest but don't feel the need to give too many details. You say "didn't bother to finish" which makes me think that it wasn't something like financial or medical reasons, in which case go with something like:

"My studies at universities 1 and 2 where as part of degree courses. In the end I decided that Maths was not for me and instead decided to pursue Computer Science. However I discovered that I prefer working on projects that have more practical applications and I found that I'm more productive in industry than academia. Therefore I decided to pursue a career without completing the degree and started working at Company Z where I ... "

and then complete that by emphasizing anything you did at that company that's going to make you useful to the company you're applying for.

You can tweak this depending on the real reasons, and be prepared to be convincing about this at an interview. In cases like these references from your previous companies may carry more weight, so make sure you have good ones ready.

Finally, I'd consider not mentioning the Math degree at all, with a few years experience it's not really that important (unless it's a math heavy job you're applying for). It may leave a bit of a hole in a timeline on the resume but resumes don't need to list absolutely everything you've done so if the timing of the other parts are fine you can just start from the Computer Science degree (or the college diploma, whichever you did first).

  • Thanks SpaceDog. This is some helpful, practical advice. I foresee some modifications coming to my resume... – WhiteHotLoveTiger Sep 23 '15 at 8:02
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    I agree with the exception of the advice to leave off the math studies. – DLS3141 Sep 23 '15 at 19:47
  • Interesting. I'd actually thought about the idea of leaving it off before, but I'd love to hear more of an argument for keeping it. – WhiteHotLoveTiger Sep 24 '15 at 1:17
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    @WhiteHotLoveTiger It really depends if you feel you can justify your actions and if you feel that the Math degree is applicable to the job your applying for. I'm not flat out saying leave it off, but it's worth considering -- perhaps on a case by case basis depending on job, you can (and arguably should) have multiple versions of your resume. I hope you get a few other answers that might have some alternative options, above is just my personal advice as someone that screens resumes and interviews candidates. – SpaceDog Sep 24 '15 at 1:41

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